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Dred Scott Versus a Mule

Was the Civil War fought over slavery or states' rights?

Trivia buffs often ponder this question: What was the difference between Dred Scott and a mule?

Not ordinary trivia buffs, mind you, but trivia buffs of the Civil War, the Confederacy, and landmark Supreme Court decisions. That would exclude a certain woman from Minnesota who first suggested that the founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery, and then doubled down by counting a nine-year old as one of those founding fathers.

The Confederacy, or at least the Confederate flag, has made a comeback in recent years. It appears to be fashionable, and was last noticed locally . Or more precisely, on what was celebrated as Tax Day.

Why? Why would one fly the wrong flag on Tax Day? What’s wrong with Old Glory? It would seem that Old Glory just does not convey the sentiment behind the Confederacy. The tradition and the rich history which, to be properly examined, forces one to examine the most tumultuous time in our nation’s past: the Civil War Era.

As most citizens know, the Civil War was fought between a group of secessionist states called the Confederate States and the Union. Most citizens however, are slowly being made to forget the main cause(s) of the Civil War.

Was it over slavery? Or was it over, as a popular news channel often claims through its hosts and guests, "States' rights?" The answer? Both.

As long as we understand that it wasn’t "States' rights" as much as "States' right."

The right to own slaves.

The story of Dred Scott, one such slave who fought to be free, is well-known. He lost, since the 13th Amendment did not exist at the time of Dred Scott vs. Sandford. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney noted:

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.

"OK," I can hear you say, "what does that have to do with the thesis that the Confederacy was mainly about slavery?"

Other than the preponderance of that sentiment in the Confederate states at that time? Not much. Take a look at segments from some of their declarations of secession.

The first two sentences from the declaration by Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

The first three from Mississippi’s:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.

From the declaration by Texas (emphasis is in the original):

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

If that does not convince you, read the declarations in their entirety, and if you are numerically curious, count how often the word “slave” appears in the texts. The Confederacy’s main goal was to ensure that people like Dred Scott remained chattel, like a mule.

A recent CNN poll estimated that today about eight out of every ten Republicans show admiration for the leaders of the South. This is in direct contrast to the Republicans of the Civil War era, when an identical number favored the Union leaders who fought the South.

It’d therefore appear that these Republicans of today more closely resemble the Southern Democrats of that era. So when someone waves the Confederate flag today, I do not necessarily conclude racism or ignorance. But I do think that they are telling me to re-title my article to "Two Mules." That upsets me just a little. In retaliation, I pose the following query:

Assume for a moment the Civil War was about "States' rights." We all know that the Union defeated the Confederacy. If it was indeed over rights and not just one right, simply enumerate the rights that the victors stripped away from the Confederate states, other than the one taken away by the 13th Amendment.

What were these other rights, and why don’t the declarations of secession cite them as grievously as they do the right to own slaves?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Dan Avery August 12, 2011 at 08:17 PM
Bravo, sir!
Peter Schelden (Editor) August 12, 2011 at 08:34 PM
Hi Shri, when you sent this to be edited, you kept the "d" in "Sandford" in brackets, so the name in the landmark Supreme Court case read: "San[d]ford." What's going on?
Shripathi Kamath August 12, 2011 at 08:44 PM
If you refer to the actual case, you'd see that it is spelled Sandford: http://supreme.justia.com/us/60/393/case.html The defendant's name was actually John F.A. Sanford, but the court clerk who entered the case, misspelled his last name. So officially the case was recorded using the defendant's name as Sandford, and hence my hesitation in using it unambiguously. I guess he did not have as watchful a copy-editor as I do. Side trivia: At the trial of William Jefferson Clinton in the Senate over the articles of impeachment, commemorative pens were produced for the Senators. Someone messed those up, and they read "UNTIED STATES SENATE"
Peter Schelden (Editor) August 12, 2011 at 10:13 PM
Ha ha, I'd like to get my hands on one of those pens.
Dan Avery August 13, 2011 at 02:05 AM
Interesting screwup.
Reed August 13, 2011 at 08:24 PM
In addition to being a moral issue, there was also a strong economic incentive for the civil war. Obviously, the Slaves provided extremely low cost labor to the South, but they also represented a large capital investment and a large part of plantation owner's net worth. Losing the value of that capital investment would have made most the plantation owner's insolvent. In the 1830's, England abolished slavery, but the English government compensated the slave owners for every slave that was freed. The problem was the U.S. Government couldn't afford to do that; if they could have, the war would have probably been avoided.
Shripathi Kamath August 13, 2011 at 08:49 PM
True, (that there was a strong economic incentive), but here's the thing, there were very few slave-owners in the South, even though there were large number of slaves. The mainly agrarian, and that too slave-based economy of the South, could not keep up with the rapidly industrializing North. The North had the concept of interchangeable parts being manufactured, something we take for granted these days. What convinced the South to remain stuck in Jeffersonian times, and oppose elimination of slavery, and adopt industrialization like the North? See if this sounds familiar. Massive propaganda by the Southern newspapers who, in conjunction with Southern churches, invoked the authority of the Bible to claim that Slavery was God's will, that letting blacks go free would usher in an era of blacks ruling the whites, and inter-racial marriages would be rampant. (Imagine that, interracial marriages!). Slave-owners wanting to milk free replenish-able labor till they could. So the ones who stood to benefit the most were few in number, and the propaganda (see the Texas declaration of secession) was simply taken as gospel. And no Yankee was going to tell a Southerner how to live. Even if Lincoln would have been glad to pay fair remuneration to the Southern slave-owners to avoid war. The interesting question was why didn't the North let the South just go? It was after all a popular sentiment in 1860.
Dan Avery August 14, 2011 at 04:19 AM
Here's what I don't get about these folks that go to rallies where the confederate flag is flying, people like Council Member Cathy Schlicht who announced she was running for reelection at one, they are completely anti-government. Their hated is of our government and it doesn't even border on anti-American sentiment, they are all in on the anti-American freedom and equality thing. Right up until you mention the military and then, suddenly, by magic, our government becomes competent and wonderful.
Shripathi Kamath August 14, 2011 at 04:43 AM
People who hate government should not campaign to run it. That is kinda like people who hate the idea of homosexuality and virulently preach against it, indulging in gay sex on the down-low Wait a cotton-picking minute, that happens quite a lot! Usually in the ranks of those who hate government. Maybe a novel protest would be to enlarge the cited para from the Texas declaration on a placard, join the Tax Day party, and wave it beside the Confederate flag waving True Patriot (TM).
Dan Avery August 14, 2011 at 07:41 AM
People who hate government and its services should go live in Columbia for about six months.
Shripathi Kamath August 14, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Colombia is not capitalistic like we used to be in an non-existent era. Such people might prefer Somalia. Very limited government and an extremely free market. You can carry all the guns you want, and no one will take it from you. Except perhaps, but only from your cold dead fingers.
Dan Avery August 14, 2011 at 05:07 PM
I stand corrected. Somalia it is then.

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