In nearly four decades of life as an American, I’ve heard a whole lot of conflicting things about the Civil War. Probably the most contentious point is about what slavery had to do with it. My own elementary education made clear that the principal issue in the war was slavery, but that this issue was mixed up with more general disputes about states’ rights and federal authority. That same education made it clear that the North fought the war primarily in order to end slavery, but also to “preserve the Union.” It was only in early adulthood that I learned that this is apparently not how the Civil War is presented to many young Americans and that there is a lot of disagreement about it. Evidently many, maybe most, kids are taught that the war was primarily about states’ rights and that slavery was a secondary issue. People — including historians who actually have some claim to know what they’re talking about — disagree about exactly what combination of factors motivated the North to fight. But a fair number of people I’ve encountered, mainly people without any historical credentials but a few with some, have barked at me about how the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery at all, but was entirely about economics; slaves mattered for that reason, but for that reason only.
I’m not about to enter into this dispute. I do, however, find it worth noting what J.S. Mill — yep, him again — thought about the war and his report of English opinion about it. No doubt historical causation is complicated, but it is interesting that, to an outside observer at least, this war was very definitely about slavery, and immensely important.
Before this [the publication of Utilitarianism] however the state of public affairs had become extremely critical, by the commencement of the American civil war. My strongest feelings were engaged in this struggle, which, I felt from the beginning, was destined to be a turning point, for good or evil, of the course of human affairs for an indefinite duration. Having been a deeply interested observer of the Slavery quarrel in America, during the many years that preceded the open breach, I knew that it was in all its stages an aggressive enterprise of the slave owners to extend the territory of slavery; under the combined influence of pecuniary interest, domineering temper, and the fanaticism of a class for its class privileges, influences so fully and powerfully depicted in the admirable work of my friend Professor Cairnes, The Slave Power. Their success, if they succeeded, would be a victory of the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of its friends all over the civilised world, while it would create a formidable military power grounded on the worst and most anti-social form of tyranny of men over men, and by destroying for a long time the prestige of the great democratic republic would give to all the privileged classes of Europe a false confidence, probably only to be extinguished by blood. On the other hand, if the spirit of the North was sufficiently roused to carry the war to a successful termination, and if that termination did not come too soon and too easily, I foresaw, from the laws of human nature and the experience of revolutions, that when it did come it would in all probability be thorough: that the bulk of the Northern population, whose conscience had as yet been awakened only to the point of resisting further extension of slavery, but whose fidelity to the Constitution of the United States made them disapprove of any attempt by the Federal Government to interfere with slavery in the States where it already existed, would acquire feelings of another kind when the Constitution had been shaken off by armed rebellion, would determine to have done for ever with the accursed thing, and would join their banner with that of the noble body of Abolitionists, of whom Garrison was the courageous and single minded apostle, Wendell Phillips the eloquent orator, and John Brown the martyr. Then, too, the whole mind of the United States would be let loose from its bonds, no longer corrupted by the supposed necessity of apologising to foreigners for the most flagrant of all possible violations of the free principles of their Constitution, while the tendency of a fixed state of society to stereotype a set of national opinions would be at least temporarily checked and the national mind would become more open to the recognition of whatever was bad in either the institutions or the customs of the people. These hopes, so far as related to Slavery, have been completely, and in other respects are in course of being progressively realized. Foreseeing from the first this double set of consequences from the success or failure of the rebellion, it may be imagined with what feelings I contemplated the rush of nearly the whole upper and middle classes of my own country, even those who passed for Liberals, into a furious pro-Southern partisanship: the working classes, and some of the literary and scientific men, being almost the sole exceptions to the general frenzy. I have never before felt so keenly how little permanent improvement had reached the minds of our influential classes and of what small value were the liberal opinions they had got into the habit of professing. None of the Continental Liberals committed the same frightful mistake. But the generation which had extorted negro emancipation from our West India planters had passed away; another had succeeded which had not learnt by many years of discussion and exposure to feel strongly the enormities of slavery; and the inattention habitual with Englishmen to whatever is going on in the world outside their own island, made them profoundly ignorant of all the antecedents of the struggle, insomuch that it was not generally believed in England, for the first year or two of the war, that the quarrel was one of slavery. There were men of high principle and unquestionable liberality of opinion who thought it a dispute about tariffs, or assimilated it to cases in which they were accustomed to sympathise, of a people struggling for independence.
– Autobiography of John Stuart Mill (1873)
Notice not only that Mill thinks that slavery was certainly the main issue, at least so far as what mattered was concerned, but that he appeals to all the other main considerations that people usually bandy about in discussions of the Civil War: economic motives, political independence, states’ rights. There’s probably no single answer to questions like ‘what caused the Civil War?’ or ‘Why did the North fight the war?’ But never let it be said that only later generations invented the notion that slavery was the thing that mattered. We didn’t need Mill’s testimony to refute that piece of revisionism, but his perspective as an interested outsider is intriguing. I’m not sure all his hopes were in fact realized, but it’s remarkable that he thought that so much rested on the outcome of that conflict.