The Civil War as an Opportunity to Abolish Slavery and Destroy the Slave Power

Author:   John Jay III


In July 1861, Congress adopted a resolution by a vote of 117 to 2 in the House and 30 to 5 in the Senate that read: “This war is not waged…for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the established institutions of those States, but to maintain the States unimpaired; and that as soon as these objects are accomplished the war should cease.” Fearful of alienating the slave states that remained in the Union–Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri–or of antagonizing Northerners who would support anti-war Democrats if the conflict were transformed into a war to abolish slavery, Lincoln felt that he had to proceed cautiously. Nevertheless, opponents of slavery, like the abolitionist attorney John Jay (1817-1894), the author of this letter and grandson of the Revolutionary War patriot, regarded the war as a providential opportunity to destroy slavery and the slave power.


We have an agency at work for the abolition of slavery in the pending war more powerful than all the Conventions we could assemble. Every battle fought will teach our soldiers & the nation at large that slavery is the great cause of the war, that it is slavery which has brutalized & barbarized the South & that slavery must be abolished as our army advances as a military necessity….

I look presently see the entire north…demanding the abolition of slavery not from their Christian regard for the rights of the slave but from motives that partake rather of self-interest–& from a conviction induced only by arguments and by facts that it is slavery alone that has reduced us to our present state.

The continuance of the war, with the unanimous and hearty approval of the whole north…that I would not run the risk of weakening it by an active antislavery movement. Let us polish our tones in patience–for I think I have already seen the beginning of the end.