Was the Civil War Really About the Slave Trade?

The question of whether the Civil War was really about slavery or not has plagued Americans for generations. The answer is both yes and no. Slavery was at the heart of the Civil War, and certainly at the heart of Republican “radicals” and abolitionists who sought to end the abhorrent practice long before the first shot was fired by Confederates at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.


The election of Abraham Lincoln upset many, including Republicans and Democrats. Radicals believed that he was too wishy-washy on the issue of slavery and others believed he was too radical. So, while Southern Democrats opposed his election because they feared he would abolish slavery, radical Republicans opposed his election because they feared he would not.

Lincoln was referred to as the “Great Emancipator,” but never actually committed himself, at least in speech, to abolishing slavery. Instead, Lincoln reportedly began his political career as being “antislavery,” and only later issued the Emancipation Proclamation after Confederates rebelled and seceded from the Union.

The 16th president supported the Thirteenth Amendment and recommended that blacks be able to vote as well, which eventually passed in 1870 as the Fifteenth Amendment.

“It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers,” Abraham Lincoln said in his last public address in April 1865.

Given the president’s views and the political climate at that time, it would be reasonable to suggest that the election of Lincoln, the antislavery Republican, was just as much a factor in causing the Civil War as, say, money.

Money & Economy

Of course, slavery was not the only cause of the Civil War, although it may be the most popular; but as long as the question is “what was the Civil War about?” we may also ask: “what was slavery about?”

The answer to that is money.

Territories on the North American continent were becoming increasingly important to both the Northern and Southern sides to keep political balance. Both sides wanted to expand westward to maintain their influence in the electorate. The North, however, grew more unwilling to compromise with the South over the expansion of slavery because, while cheap cotton was desirable, there were several other emerging industries.

The Republican Party was reportedly formed in 1854 to represent the economic interests of the North, which supported higher tariffs and subsidies for railroad development.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform that largely advocated for the economic needs of the North, which led to the Southern states seceding in their effort to preserve their slave-owning economy.

And, well, the rest is history.