Was the Civil War God’s Judgment on America for Slavery?

The consequences of institutionalized slavery bringing Divine judgment was not lost on many Americans and was a major theme of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Lincoln knew that God had “His own purposes” in bringing the Civil War to the American people. God brings “woe unto the world because of offenses… (and) if we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses,” then “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”

The Northern compromise with the South provided a number of proslavery provisions to the Constitution that antislavery Northerners could have resisted. The convention prohibited the end of the African slave trade until 1808 (allowing for the importation of more than 60,000 more Africans), but did not require it ever to be ended. It adopted two clauses that guaranteed the federal government would suppress slave insurrections and one that required the return of fugitive slaves. Requiring a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states to amend the Constitution essentially gave the slave states a perpetual veto over Constitutional change. From this country’s inception, the Founders’ commitment to subordinating the controversial issue of slavery to the larger goal of securing the unity and independence of the United States has been a blemish on this country. At the Constitutional Convention concessions were made to the Southern states by the Northern states because of a concern that a union could not succeed if all thirteen colonies were not included.


George Mason of Virginia, however, argued against such concessions and for the immediate outlawing of slavery. He warned of the judgment of God if slavery was allowed to continue, saying, “Every master is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”

Many see the Civil War and the loss of 700,000 lives as the judgment that Mason predicted. Thomas Jefferson shared Mason’s concern for it was in the context of the continued existence of slavery that he wrote, “God who gave us life, gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

This compromise and the consequences of Divine judgment was not lost on subsequent generations and was a major theme of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Lincoln knew that God had “His own purposes” in bringing the Civil War to the American people. God brings “woe unto the world because of offenses… (and) if we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses,” then “He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.”

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln hoped that reverence for the union and the “better angels of our nature” would keep Americans together. Four years later, in his Second Inaugural Address, he staked national reconciliation on a chastened view of God’s providential purposes in the war:

“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

To Lincoln, the war was God’s judgment on the entire United States for the institution of slavery. History has viewed, and rightly so, the South as the beneficiary of the enslavement of African peoples. The North, however, also benefited from this abomination greatly. Lincoln condemned slavery as a theft of labor referring to the institution’s physical brutality. Lincoln was reminding the country that the “terrible” violence of the Civil War had been preceded by two and a half centuries of the terrible violence of slavery. Yet Lincoln calls it “American slavery,” not Southern slavery in his second inaugural address. It was his point that the nation as a whole was guilty of this sin.

The Northern States profited from slavery in many ways, from the country’s inception right up until the outbreak of hostilities. Even after slavery was outlawed in the North, ships out of New England continued to carry thousands of Africans southward to the Slave States. Some 156,000 slaves were brought to the United States in the period 1801-1808, almost all of them on ships that sailed from New England ports that had recently outlawed slavery. Rhode Island slavers alone imported an average of 6,400 Africans annually into the U.S. in the years 1805 and 1806.

Northern industry also benefited greatly from slave labor. The slave-based profits made in the south were matched by northern industrialists whose mills in 1850 consumed 150 million pounds of cotton a year. Slave labor provided a cheap source of raw materials. Ironically, America’s first power-driven mill was funded by a Providence abolitionist, Moses Brown, whose brother John tried to succeed in the slave trade. Cotton indeed became, as Emerson said, “The thread that holds the union together.”

How much did the North profit from the labor of Southern slavery? In 1861 Mayor Fernando Wood declared that New York City should secede from the United States. His reasoning was simple. Southern cotton, picked by slaves, was the lifeblood of New York’s economy. New York merchants prospered by selling Southern planters luxury goods while the city’s ship builders built vessels to transport northern manufactured goods South and cotton and other agricultural products North. Wood believed New York’s best interests lay in putting New York’s financial interests ahead of any moral consideration regarding human chattel slavery.

Investment in slavery was one of the most profitable economic activities throughout New York’s history leading up to the Civil War. Much of the financing for the slave economy flowed through New York banks. Marquee names such as JP Morgan Chase and New York Life all profited greatly from slavery. Lehman Brothers, one of Wall Street’s largest firms until 2008, got its start in the slave economy of Alabama. Slavery was so important to the city that New York was one the most pro-slavery urban municipalities in the North.

Below is a list of Northern Companies that benefited from the labor and suffering of black slaves.

  • • AIG Corporation – bought American General Financial which owns US Life Insurance Company. US Life used to insure the lives of slaves.
    • Aetna – insured the lives of slaves in the 1850s.
    • Bank of America – grew in part out of the Bank of Metropolis, which accepted slaves as collateral.
    • Brooks Brothers – got its start making clothes for slaves!
    • Brown Brothers Harriman – a Wall Street bank that owned hundreds of slaves and lent millions to Southern planters, merchants and cotton traders.
    • Brown University – named for the Brown brothers who gave money to the university. Two were slave traders, another ran a factory that used slave-grown cotton. University Hall was built in part by slave labor.
    • CSX Corporation – rented slaves to build rail lines.
    • Fleet Boston – grew out of Providence Bank, founded by one of the Brown brothers (see Brown University above), a slave trader who owned slave ships. The bank made money from the slave trade. Providence, Rhode Island was the home port for many slave ships.
    • Harvard Law School – endowed with money from Isaac Royall, an Antiguan slave owner and sugar grower.
    • JP Morgan Chase – made a fortune from the slave trade. Predecessor banks (Citizens Bank, Canal Bank in Louisiana) accepted slaves as collateral, taking possession of 1,250 slaves from owners who defaulted on loans.
    • New York Life – insured slaves. Of its first 1,000 insurance polices, 339 were policies on slaves.
    • Norfolk Southern – the Mobile & Girard, now part of Norfolk Southern, rented slaves to work on the railroad. Central of Georgia, also now part of the company, owned slaves.
    • Wells Fargo – Georgia Railroad & Banking Company and the Bank of Charleston owned or accepted slaves as collateral. They later became part of Wells Fargo by way of Wachovia. (In the 2000s Wells Fargo targeted blacks for predatory lending.)

So the meme that the war was fought to free the slaves is nothing but a cover because the war was fought to preserve the Union and all the financial benefits that both sides enjoyed at the expense of African slaves. Lincoln made this clear in a letter to Horace Greeley dated August 22, 1862. “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.” Lincoln would come a long way from this view point when he addressed slavery in his second inaugural address.

The sectional motives for the Civil War were hype and disguised their true objective which was to retain the financial status quo which flourished by the enslavement of millions. These stated motives or talking points fooled many during the time of slavery, during the civil war, and during the time of reconstruction. Unfortunately, it is a meme that has colored the history of this country right up to the present day. It may have fooled history but it did not fool God. Thomas Jefferson was right when in referring to slavery he said “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” God is a patient but not an ever-patient God and in 1861 His patience ended.

We worship a loving God, but also a just God. God has often brought down His wrath on entire nations for their national sin. What makes God so angry that He, this ever patient God, finally brings down His wrath on a nation? In Amos 1:3-2:3 God lists six nations that He is angry with. These nations have been brutal towards Israel, engaged in slave-trading whole communities, pursuing old rivalries and betrayals and desecrating the dead.

Though they are Gentile nations and not under the Law, these nations were responsible to the Creator God for what they did. Their disregard for human life is an attack on God’s image in human beings. God is a God of justice and He would send His punishment on these nations.

God’s anger was not only directed toward these unbelieving nations. After indicting these six nations He turns to the nations of Israel and Judah, who are under His law, with breaking that Law. The Law was a means of grace, an invitation to a relationship with their God. And in Exodus 24:3, the people committed themselves to follow: “All the words which the Lord has said, we will do.” But they didn’t. God would show His anger.

The Book of Amos starts with an indictment of the six Gentile nations and then Israel and Judah. God through Amos condemns the nation of Israel in Amos 2:6-9. God is angry with Israel for their social injustice (v.6-7); their sexual immorality (v.7) and their idolatry (v.8). Their blessing didn’t result in blessing others, instead it was a means of indulging themselves and treating people unjustly. After indicting all of these nations God then proceeds to pass judgment and a brutal judgment it is.

God brings judgement, terrible judgement, on these eight nations due to their nation’s sins. What makes the United States as a country believe it is exempt from God’s judgement. Everyone knows of the brutality that enslavement brought to millions of African slaves. The physical anguish, the anguish it brought to families. It was a system of injustice that brought misery to millions of God’s creation. It was this exact injustice that God condemned the six Gentile nations, Israel and Judah for. Maybe it is time to view the American Civil War in light of the message Amos was inspired to deliver to all nations. Maybe we should throw out the spin that the Civil War was a war to free the slaves. But wait! It was a war to free the slaves, but it was a war that God brought on to meet out justice and free the slaves.

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