There is much talk these days, as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, about the causes of that war. A recent poll indicates that a near majority of Americans believe this war began over an abstract principle which is most frequently labeled "States' Rights." It is well and good to claim this, if you understand what "rights" were most dear to secessionists. It is something altogether different if you use "States' Rights" as a vehicle for trying to deny that the war began as a crisis over the fate of slavery within the Republic. We need to move beyond this decades-old smokescreen, my friends, and the surest way to do that is to go back to the declarations issued by the seceding states. They are stunningly clear: these states seceded from the United States because they believed slavery could no longer be protected within the Union, and they were bound and determined not to let go of their peculiar institution. Want proof? It is not hard to find. Let's start with South Carolina.
From "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union":
We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign [take away] the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.
The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.
Sectional interest and animosity will deepen the irritation, and all hope of remedy is rendered vain, by the fact that public opinion at the North has invested a great political error with the sanction of more erroneous religious belief.
We, therefore, the People of South Carolina, by our delegates in Convention assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, have solemnly declared that the Union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State; with full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.
Adopted December 24, 1860
The above is not the ranting of some liberal, perhaps even *gasp* Marxist historian. The above is not "revisionist history." The above is the justification issued by the government of South Carolina regarding its decision to leave the United States. It was that decision which set the stage for conflict, that decision which triggered a sequence of events that led to the firing on Fort Sumter, that decision which therefore ultimately led to the American Civil War. What is it about the above argument that is so unclear? South Carolina seceded in order to protect slavery, as is clearly articulated in this document, therefore slavery is the central cause of the war. South Carolinians in 1860-61 understood this very well...why can't we?
Lest you doubt the word of the delegates from South Carolina, or you think I have misconstrued their argument, consider the statement from Mississippi.
From: "A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union":
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. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
See here for declarations of causes from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas in their entirety. I also highly recommend Charles Dew, Apostles of Disunion, for more on what secessionists said as to why they believed secession to be the best option for South Carolina and the other slaveholding states.