(July 15, 2018) Partly because some of the Southern states formally cited the protection of slavery as their chief reason for seceding, today’s public generally believes that the North entered the Civil War to free the slaves. But the pre-war resolutions of Northern states replying to secession examined so far (Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Ohio) undeniably show that the principal reason they opposed secession was “to preserve the Union”* and not to free the slaves. Today’s post analyzes the January 25, 1861 joint resolutions of the New Jersey General Assembly. On that date only five of the eventual eleven Confederate states had yet seceded.
[Learn more about Civil War and Reconstruction at My Amazon Author Page.]
Similar to the resolutions of the other Northern states analyzed so far, New Jersey’s principal aim to “sustain the Union” is stated in the first of nine resolutions. The second asserts the illegality of secession and the sixth calls upon all states having adopted ordinances of secession to repeal them. Only the fourth even mentions slavery and it is coupled with the third, fifth, seventh, and eighth, which are pleas for compromise and expressions of New Jersey’s eagerness to promote such compromise in order “to permanently settle the question of slavery.”
Most significant is the fourth resolution. It endorses the proposed “Crittenden Compromise,” which would amend the constitution in two basic ways. First, it would forever forbid federal abolition or interference with slavery in the states where it was then legal. And, futhermore, the amendment would specify that it could never be changed or repealed. Second, another provision would allow slavery in the Western territories below the latitude of Missouri’s southern border. Thus, the future states of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona would enter the Union as slave states whereas the other thirteen states that joined after the Civil War started would have been admitted as free states. (Any territories hypothetically acquired from Mexico or nations farther South might also be admitted as slave states.)
Although New Jersey’s resolutions imply she would go to war to preserve the Union, there’s no indication that she wanted to free the slaves. To the contrary, the state explicitly supported a compromise that would forever keep them in bondage in the states where slavery was then legal, unless the applicable states chose to abolish slavery themselves. It would also permit slavery in America’s present day Southwest.
New Jersey failed to cite concrete reasons for wanting to “sustain the Union of the States.” Much like Ohio and Pennsylvania she asserted that an undivided federal Union was the “main pillar” supporting the “tranquility,” “prosperity” and “liberty” of the people of New Jersey. Since there is no explanation about why a mere alteration in the national borders would change any of those abstractions, historians should more thoroughly investigate why the Northern states chose to fight instead of letting the cotton states leave in peace. As explained in earlier posts, there’s considerable evidence suggesting that Northerners wanted to “preserve the Union” in order to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.
* Contemporary Southerners interpreted the Northern war-motivating expression “to preserve the Union” as a euphemistic translation for “coercing the seceded states back into the Union.” Since “preserving the Union” is presently the dominant description among historians, their choice underscores the ancient wisdom that winners write the history.