What Caused the Civil War- with Ed Ayers

Here’s Professor Ed Ayers giving an outstanding presentation to a group of teachers on what caused the Civil War. I especially like how he dispels the myth that “the North” was industrial and the war came on in part because of “an industrialized North” competing with “an agricultural South.” He also dispels the ahistorical nonsense that secession was due to taxes, specifically the tariff. He ends by talking about how emancipation grew out of the war.

Unfortunately, there are a few areas where the sound quality is extremely poor.

The video’s description reads, “Edward L. Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor in Humanities at the University of Richmond, and founding chair of the American Civil War Museum leads Museum Teacher Institute participants though an examination of the controversies that led to increased sectional tensions.”



  1. this discussion just showed up on my Gmail. Scanning the comments I see that I named Edward Ayers as the author of “The Causes of the Civil War”.My mistake, that book was written by Kenneth Stampp. Another correction is the title of Edward Ayers book is a question, “What Caused The Civil War?”.
    I realize that there are a variety of abstract nouns that can be cited as reasons for why some favored secession and others opposed it. I just happen to see the slave as the only concrete noun in question when debating the question, “what caused the war?”.

  2. Matthew Tenney · · Reply

    Other than a word search in the text of the Virginia Convention of 1861, where did he dispel the nonsense that secession was due to the tariff?

    1. He addresses the entire economic interpretation, which interpretation includes the tariff. The word count is a big thing because it shows how important the topic was in the convention–or in the case of the tariff, how unimportant it was.

    2. It is amusing to see people today try to link the tariff to secession. All it takes is a reading of the Congressional Globe to see that the Morrill Tariff only became law because of secession. In reading the speeches at the secession conventions and the documents, slavery dominates them to a point where everything else is an afterthought.

  3. Matthew Tenney · · Reply

    Word counting is a tricky business. For example, while “tariff” is only mentioned 81 times, the word “tax” is mentioned 201 times and “taxation” is mentioned 322 times. The word “slavery” occurs 512 times but the word “rights” appears 859 times.

    1. When they talk about slavery we know they mean slavery. When they talk about tariffs we know they mean tariffs. When they talk about taxes do they mean tariffs or direct taxes or some other kind of tax? What rights were they talking about? The right to keep slaves?

  4. Matthew Tenney · · Reply

    My sense is the portion of debate containing reference to taxes was mostly about tariffs. The word “revenue” and some of the uses of “duties” and the word “tribute” also refer to the tariff. Here is something concrete which we can test and in my estimation, Prof Ayers gave misleading statistics. He has worked with this long enough that he ought to know that they were misleading. Still, I acknowledge that slavery was a major topic.

    What rights were they talking about? Rights guaranteed by the Constitution, I presume. Slavery? Yes. Equality of taxation? Yes? Protection against invasion? Yes.

    There is an interesting incident at the Virginia convention in which someone arose to speak. He looked around and said that he noticed that many of his opponents were absent and then he said he would like to defer his speech so as not to talk advantage of his opponents. We often can see someone’s true nature when they have the advantage. The import of the Morrill tariff is that it’s passage indicated the true nature of the Republicans. Another nail in the coffin of brotherhood.

    1. Well, let’s see one of those references, the first one I came to. It was from Henry Benning’s speech to the convention. Benning was the secession commissioner from Georgia. His speech can be seen here.
      Benning mentions the tariff four times.

      1. [begin quote]
      In the first place, I say that the North hates slavery, and, in using that expression I speak wittingly. In saying that the Black Republican party of the North hates slavery, I speak intentionally. If there is a doubt upon that question in the mind of any one who listens to me, a few of the multitude of proofs which could fill this room, would, I think, be sufficient to satisfy him. I beg to refer to a few of the proofs that are so abundant; and the first that I shall adduce consists in two extracts from a speech of Lincoln’s, made in October, 1858. They are as follows: “I have always hated slavery as much as any abolitionist; I have always been an old line Whig; I have always hated it and I always believed it in the course of ultimate extinction, and if I were in Congress and a vote should come up on the question, whether slavery should be excluded from the territory, in spite of the Dred Scott decision, I would vote that it should.”

      These are pregnant statements; they avow a sentiment, a political principle of action, a sentiment of hatred to slavery as extreme as hatred can exist. The political principle here avowed is, that his action against slavery is not to be restrained by the Constitution of the United States, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States. I say, if you can find any degree of hatred greater than that, I should like to see it. This is the sentiment of the chosen leader of the Black Republican party; and can you doubt that it is not entertained by every solitary member of that same party? You cannot, I think. He is a representative man; his sentiments are the sentiments of his party; his principles of political action are the principles of political action of his party. I say, then; it is true, at least, that the Republican party of the North hates slavery.

      My next proposition is, that the Republican party of the North is in a permanent majority. It is true that in a government organized like the government of the Northern States, and like our own government, a majority, where it is permanent, is equivalent to the whole. The minority is powerless if the majority be permanent. Now, is this majority of the Republican party permanent? I say it is. That party is so deeply seated at the North that you cannot overthrow it. It has the press, it has the pulpit, it has the school-house, it has the organizations-the Governors, Legislatures, the judiciary, county officers, magistrates, constables, mayors, in fact all official life. Now, it has the General Government in addition. It has that inexhaustible reserve to fall back upon and to recruit from, the universal feeling at the North that slavery is a moral, social and political evil. With this to fall back upon, recruiting is easy. This is not all. The Republican party is now in league with the tariff, in league with internal improvements, in league with three Pacific Railroads. Sir, you cannot overthrow such a party as that. As well might you attempt to lift a mountain out of its bed and throw it into the sea.

      But, suppose, sir, that by the aid of Providence and the intensest human exertion, you were enabled to overthrow it, how long would your victory last? But a very short time. The same ascendancy which that party has gained now, would be gained again before long. If it has come to this vast majority in the course of twenty-five years, from nothing, how long would it take the fragments of that party to get again into a majority? Sir, in two or three Presidential elections your labor would be worse than the labor of Sisyphus, and every time you rolled the rock up the hill it would roll back again growing larger and larger each time until at last it would roll back like an avalanche crushing you beneath it.

      The Republican party is the permanent, dominant party at the North, and it is vain to think that you can put it down. It is true that the Republican party hates slavery, and that it is to be the permanent, dominant party at the North; and the majority being equivalent to the whole, as I have already stated, we cannot doubt the result. What is the feeling of the rest of the Northern people upon this subject? Can you trust them? They all say that slavery is a moral, social and political evil. Then the result of that feeling must be hatred to the institution; and if that is not entertained, it must be the consequence of something artificial or temporary-some interest, some thirst for office, or some confidence in immediate advancement. And we know that these considerations cannot be depended upon, and we may expect that, ultimately, the whole North will pass from this inactive state of hatred into the active state which animates the Black Republican party.
      [end quote]

      2. [begin quote]
      What ought to influence a nation to enter into a treaty with another nation? It ought not be, I am free to say, any higher consideration than interest-material, social, political, religious interests. I am free to say that unless it could be made to appear that it was to her interest, she ought not to enter into it. And it shall be my endeavor now, to show that it will be to the interest of Virginia materially, socially, politically and religiously, to accept the invitation of Georgia to join the Southern Confederacy-and, first, will it be to her material interests?

      Georgia and the other cotton States produce four millions of bales of cotton, annually. Every one of these bales is worth $50. The whole crop therefore, is worth $200,000,000. This crop goes on growing rapidly from year to year. The increase in the last decade was nearly 50 per cent. If the same increase should continue for the next decade we should have, in 1870, six million bales; in 1890,1 nine million of bales, and so on. And, supposing that this rate will not continue, yet we have a right to assume that the increase, in after years, will be very great, because consumption outruns production, and so long as that is the case, production will try to overtake it.

      You perceive, then, that out of one article we have two hundred millions of dollars. This is surplus, and a prospect of an indefinite increase in the future. Then, we have sugar worth from fifteen to twenty millions of dollars, increasing every year at a pretty rapid rate. Then, we have rice, and naval stores, and plank, and live oak and various other articles which make a few more millions. You may set down that these States yield a surplus of $270,000,000 with a prospect of increase. These we turn into money and with that we buy manufactured goods, iron, cotton and woolen manufactures ready made and many other descriptions of goods necessary for consumption. Then we buy flour, and wheat, and bacon, and pork, and we buy mules and negroes; very little of this money is consumed at home; we lay it out this way.

      Now I say, why will not Virginia furnish us these goods? Why will not she take the place now held by New England and New York, and furnish to the South these goods? Bear in mind that the manufactures consumed by the South are manufactures of the United States. They have now got the whole market by virtue of the tariff which we have laid on foreign importation. Will not Virginia take this place? I ask, is it not to the interest of Virginia and the border States to take this place? Most assuredly it is. Now I say it is at her own option whether she will take it or not. I dare say she can have the same sort of protection against the north that she has against Europe. That being so, and inasmuch as the same cause must produce the same effect, the same cause that built up manufactures at the north, will operate similarly in Virginia.
      [end quote]

      3. and 4.
      [begin quote]
      I say, then, it is in your power, by joining our Southern Confederacy, to become a great manufacturing empire. If you do not consider our organization as it is now made good enough, go down to Montgomery, and say, change this in such and such a form, and I venture to assert that they will meet you in the spirit in which you go. As things now stand, there is a great drain of wealth from the South to the North. The operation of the tariff, which at present averages about 20 per cent, is to enhance the prices of foreign goods upon us to that extent; and not only foreign goods, but domestic goods, as they will always preserve a strict ratio with the price charged for foreign imports. The South is thus heavily taxed. What the amount of tribute is which she pays to the North in this form, I have not accurately ascertained. It is difficult to find out how much tribute she pays in this form, but, from a rough estimate which I have made out myself, putting the amount of goods consumed by the South at $250,000,000 annually, though a Northern gentleman puts it at $300,000,000; but putting it at $250,000,000, the tribute which the South pays to the North annually, according to the present tariff [20 per cent] amounts to $50,000,000. Then there are the navigation laws which give the North a monopoly of the coasting trade. The consequence of this monopoly is that it raises freights, and to that extent enhances the price of goods upon us. There is the indirect carrying trade, in which they also have a monopoly. Instead of our goods coming to us direct, they now come by New York, Philadelphia or Boston. Last year the amount of goods that came to the South by this indirect route was about $72,000,000 which were not carried at a less cost than $5,000,000, which, of course, had to be paid by us. In the matter of expenditures we have not more than one fifth allotted to us, whereas we ought to have one-third. In 1860 the expenditures were $80,000,000, and the proportion of this which is lost to us by an unjust system of discrimination amounts to nearly $20,000,000. This is a perpetual drain upon us.
      [end quote]

      Looking at Benning’s speech, the references to tariff, tax, and tribute are not given as reasons to secede but rather slavery is given as the reason to secede. The references to tariff, tax, and tribute are given as incentives to join the confederacy and to show the United States needed them more than they needed the United States.

      This one speech contains four references to tariff, three to tax, and three to tribute. None of them are Virginia’s concerns, but rather are given by the secession commissioner from Georgia. Were they Georgia’s concerns? He says early in the speech, “What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North-was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. This conviction, sir, was the main cause. It is true, sir, that the effect of this conviction was strengthened by a further conviction that such a separation would be the best remedy for the fugitive slave evil, and also the best, if not the only remedy, for the territorial evil. But, doubtless, if it had not been for the first conviction this step would never have been taken. It therefore becomes important to inquire whether this conviction was well founded.” So they were not Georgia’s concerns. Instead, they are given as inducements to show the Southern states didn’t need the United States and the United States would be hurt more than the Southern states would be hurt by secession.

    2. The Morrill Tariff was only able to be passed because of the resignations of 12 senators from the first six states to attempt secession. It was stuck in a committee in the Senate. When those senators resigned, suddenly there weren’t enough votes to prevent it from being sent to the Senate floor.

      The southern states did themselves in by refusing to use their offices to prevent its passage. Each state had equality in the US Senate via Article I of the US Constitution which specified that each state had 2 senators. By choosing to abdicate their responsibilities, those states forfeited their equality.

      Also, let’s not forget the hypocrisy of a white man saying he wanted to defer his speech because others were missing. Where were all of the representatives of the men who were not allowed to vote? Where were all the representatives of the western part of the state of Virginia who were not represented equally in Virginia due to the state laws of political representation favoring the eastern section of the state as well as the representatives black men, free or slave?

  5. Matthew Tenney · · Reply

    Suppose upon the death of their parents, two brothers got into a fight over some family heirlooms. One brother storms out very upset. The other brother says this is great, My brother had equality but now he has forfeit that equality and so I’m taking what I want. Would you do that to your brother? I would hope not. I know I will criticized for referencing the Bible, but here goes anyway, the Bible says when there is a conflict, drop everything and be first reconciled.

    1. Poor analogy. Making policy for the national good isn’t dividing parents’ belongings. Nothing at all comparable.

  6. Matthew Tenney · · Reply

    Prof. Ayers says (9:15) “so what’s the, underlying all things we talked about here, the real problem? Don’t say slavery. it is but even beneath that.” I must have slept through the answer. What does he consider the real problem?

    1. He’s talking about why do people care so much today.

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