For one thing, the commenter completely (and the author of the Atlantic article) confounds the distinction between secession and the War itself. Secession could easily have been effected without a war. Slavery was, for many states the chief aggravating factor, although that issue is oversimplified by the commenter, which you can see if you read, for example, the whole of the Texas statement, in which slavery isn't even mentioned until about two-thirds of the way into the document.
One wonders what else the authors of the statement could even talk about for all that time if their reasons for secession were exclusively over slavery.
Maybe the commenter would like to point out where slavery is mentioned in Jefferson Davis' inaugural address. Good luck.
Now I have said before that this is an oversimplification of the issue--that to say that slavery was THE cause of the Civil War is just as much of an oversimplification as to say that it wasn't a cause at all. In fact Gen. Sherman himself probably had it about right: "Slavery is not the cause but the pretext." In fact, Sherman knew that Southern states were using slavery to gain rhetorical leverage on the issue of secession. At bottom, Sherman believed, the real reason for the desire by some in the South for independence was economic:
They want free trade here – to import free, and send their goods up the Rivers free of all charges but freight & insurance – New York, Boston, Phila. & Baltimore could not afford to pay duties if New Orleans is a Free port.This view was articulated several years later by another supporter of the Union: John Pendleton Kennedy. Kennedy, who had been a potential Republican vice presidential candidate in 1860, contended that pro-secession leaders in the South knew very well that the institution of slavery was not in danger from the North. In fact, the issue up to that point was not whether slavery could continue in the South, but whether it could be expanded beyond the states that already had slaves. They were using the perceived threat of abolition as an excuse to pry the Southern states loose from the Union for economic reasons:
It is the merest sham and make believe for any Southern man to pretend that the institution of slavery was ever brought into peril before this rebellion exposed it to the dangers that now surround it. I can hardly suppose that any man of sense in the South could believe otherwise than that a war, once provoked between the states, would be the only effective agency which could destroy or impair it against the will and without the cooperation of the Slave States themselves.In other words, slavery was not endangered before the War. It was only endangered by the War. And note that this argument--that slavery was not the cause of the War--is a reason that reflects badly, not well on the South. Why did states like Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas say they were seceding (at least in part) because of slavery? There's your answer.
Slavery may be said to be the cause of the rebellion only in the same sense in which we affirm that cotton and sugar are the cause of it, or that Southern character, habits, climate, and social life are the sources out of which it has sprung.The people who quote official documents like the secession declarations have apparently never been around politicians much and who uncritically take what politicians say at face value, rather than with a grain of salt.
In one sense the secessionists in the South were the analogs to the abolitionists in the North: both were radical in their methods--although the abolitionists were at least right in their aims.
And once secession was accomplished, there was the matter of war. At that point, Constitutional issues came to the fore--and issues of simple state loyalty.
Lincoln said time and again that slavery was not the reason for the Union's invasion of the South. From his First Inaugural Address, before the War:
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so...Add that to his very clear and unambiguous comments to Horace Greeley that it was Union, not slavery, that was his chief concern.
And, of course, when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it only applied to states and territories loyal to the Confederacy, not to any territories not loyal to it. It's chief objective was not the freedom of the slaves, but to excite insurrection in the South, which may be why, even after it was issues, if a state simply renounced its loyalty to the Confederacy, it could rejoin the Union--with its slaves.
In fact, if the War was about slavery, then why was slavery still common the Washington, D.C.--until the end of the War? And why was Lincoln's White House staffed by slaves? Why, at the beginning of the War, was the policy (supported by Lincoln because doing anything else would alienate the neutral slave-holding border states) to return slaves to their masters?
Oh, and the vice president of the Union, Andrew Johnson, had not only owned slaves, but advocated a state's right to allow slavery.
And then, of course, you have the matter of what the people fighting the War were actually fighting for. Were Southern officers and soldiers primarily fighting for slavery? And were Northern officers and soldiers primarily fighting against it?
If Ulysses S. Grant was fighting to free the slaves, then why did he have slaves--four his wife brought with her and one, William Jones, he himself owned and didn't free until 1859, less than two years before the start of the War? Grant himself came from an abolitionist family, but his own views on it seemed to be much more ambivalent. In fact, Grant ran a small plantation, White Haven, on which he worked with the five slaves owned by his family. The remaining slaves at White Haven, who apparently just walked off at some time during the War, weren't formally freed until 1865 by Missouri's Constitutional Convention, three years after the Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee freed the last of his slaves.
Grant even favored Stephen Douglas, who was for the expansion of slavery, against Lincoln who was against its expansion, in the election of 1860.
William Tecumseh Sherman was not an abolitionist before the war and did not believe in equal rights for Blacks. His views on Southern slavery mostly ran to thinking that it was a bad reason for a war, and he had a mild view of southern slavery:
I believe the practice of slavery in the South is the mildest and best regulated system of slavery in the world now or heretofore. (April 4, 1861)Now although in his memoirs after the War, when he was hailed as a hero for freeing slaves as he marched to the sea and had this acquired reputation to keep up, he called slavery "the chief cause" of war, he was saying something very different before and during it.
From his correspondence at the time, here were Sherman's personal views on what Louisiana should do with its practice of slavery:
I would forbid the separation of families, letting the father, mother, and children, be sold together to one person, instead of each to the highest bidder. And, again, I would advise the repeal of the statute which enacted a severe penalty for even the owner to teach his slave to read and write...Hardly a ringing endorsement of abolition.
Sherman even believed that the Constitution entitled masters to the ownership if their slaves, and one of his arguments with an old schoolboy friend who had joined the rebellion consisted of saying that his own act of separating himself from the United States and its Constitution undermined his right to own his slaves since it was the very Constitution that gave him the legal right to have them.
Again, not exactly an abolitionist position.
Then you had Southern leaders. What are we to make of the fact that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were both opposed to secession before the War, but, once it had been effected, joined the South--not because of any opinions they had about slavery--but because of their loyalty to their states.
The South did not secede primarily to maintain slavery: it could have maintained slavery easily without the War--and it knew it, as did its Northern critics like Sherman and Kennedy. And the North did not invade the South because of slavery: even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern states could rejoin and keep their slaves.
The basic problem with the view that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War is that those who spout it read the changed atmosphere after the War onto the time leading up to the War. They were two very different cultural environments, which is why, when quotations are given from those participating in the Northern invasion of the South that seem to support the thesis that slavery was the primary cause of the War, they are almost always originate after the War, when it had become fashionable to say such things.
The the causes of the War should be derived from those things that were said before it--with proper attention to the motives that lay behind them.