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The American Civil War: Was It Really About Slavery?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Eric DeVore
March 4, 2024

We all know that the American Civil War (1861-1865) was fought over slavery, but was it really? On the surface, it certainly seems the generally accepted view that the war was about slavery alone is correct. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, freed all enslaved people in the Confederate states during the war. After the conclusion of the war, Congress passed into law the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery altogether in the United States. Slavery may have been the catalyst that sparked the flame, but the real issue of the American Civil War was about states’ rights and the powers of the Federal Government.  

History of Governing Slavery 

The debate over slavery began shortly after the end of the American Revolution. The decision of which states entering the United States would be slave states or free states was made entirely by the Federal Government. On the part of the Federal Government, these decisions were not based on the morality of slavery or even slavery as an institution. Rather, it was an attempt to maintain a balance of representation. Of course, this is an oversimplification for the purposes of this discussion. 

Beginning with the Three-Fifths Compromise (1787), which allowed for slave states to count three out of every five slaves when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation and taxation. With the Louisiana Purchase came the Missouri Compromise (1820), which essentially created an imaginary line along the 36°30’ parallel, cutting the new territory in half. This line determined which states formed from this new territory would be slave states and which would be free states. Again, this was designed to keep a balance of power in the Federal Government.  

Powers of the Federal Government 

Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution (1788), also known as the Supremacy Clause, establishes that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and takes precedence over state laws and constitutions. In this context, the powers of the Federal Government seem quite broad and expansive. However, the 10th Amendment (1791), which is part of the Bill of Rights, ensures states’ rights. It guarantees that any right or power not specifically named by the Constitution belongs to the states.  

As the issue of slavery is not mentioned at all in the Constitution itself, it would seem that it should have then been a states’ right under the 10th Amendment. So, it is surprising that for nearly six decades after the ratification of the 10th Amendment, the Federal Government would exercise complete power over the question of slavery. It was not until the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, that states were finally given the right to decide for themselves whether they would be free states or slave states.  


When South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860, they claimed the reason for the secession was the violation of their states’ rights. That the Federal Government exercised powers not given to it by the Constitution. Rights that were supposed to be guaranteed by the 10th Amendment. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas followed in January and February 1861.  

While these states complained that their states’ rights were being infringed on, they themselves were infringing on the rights of the Northern states. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a federal law for all states and private citizens to return slaves to their masters. The Southern states that seceded claimed that the Northern states were infringing on their rights by refusing to enforce this law. Yet, the Fugitive Slave Act itself infringed on the rights of Northern states as it overrode numerous state and local laws.  


From the very founding of our nation, the question of slavery and how it was to be governed was determined by the Federal Government. The Constitution and the 10th Amendment define what powers belong to the Federal Government and which lie with the individual states. While slavery is not mentioned in the Constitution, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, that did not stop them from taking jurisdiction. It was not until 1854, with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, that states were finally allowed to exercise the rights guaranteed to them to determine the governing of slavery for themselves. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the Federal Government took the issue of slavery back out of the hands of the states and made the decision for them.  

While the Constitutional issue of states’ rights versus the powers of the Federal Government in the context of the American Civil War is intriguing, maybe it was never really about states’ rights at all. After all, they themselves were infringing on the rights of other states to protect their real interests. Maybe Southern secessionists hid behind the excuse of states’ rights in order to protect what they really cared about: Slavery. 

Author: Eric DeVore has a Master of Public Administration from California Baptist University in Southern California. He is currently in the DPA program at CBU. He has served the public for more than 15 years with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Initially, he worked in crime scene investigations with their forensics unit. He is currently a deputy coroner with the Department, conducting death investigations. Email: [email protected] 

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3 Responses to The American Civil War: Was It Really About Slavery?

  1. Peter Radan Reply

    March 5, 2024 at 9:08 pm

    Secession was all about slavery. States’ rights was the legal basis of a claimed right to unilaterally secede. Southern states also relied on the antithesis of the states’ rights theory of the Constitution when it served their purpose of protecting slavery – eg on the issue of runaway slaves. However, as to whether the slave states had a constitutional right to unilaterally secede – their legal argument is much stronger than that put by others, such as Lincoln. The Constitution created a slaveholders’ union. The slave states seceded in order to form a more perfect slaveholders’ union.

  2. Heather Wyatt-Nichol Reply

    March 4, 2024 at 3:22 pm

    You stated “As the issue of slavery is not mentioned at all in the Constitution itself, it would seem that it should have then been a states’ right under the 10th Amendment.”

    It’s good to know that you at least recognized the 3/5 Compromise

    The original Constitution also included the runaway slave clause
    Runaway slave clause in the original Constitution

    It would be nice to end the perennial debate.

  3. Barbara Hoke Reply

    March 4, 2024 at 2:53 pm

    This was so very interesting, some of which I never learned in school it’s great to have read truths ty!

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